SINGAPORE — Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan issued a carefully framed warning to China in what officials billed as a major policy speech at a prominent Asian security conference in Singapore on Saturday.
Shanahan ticked off a highly-specific litany of Chinese activities in the region that the U.S. considers destabilizing, calling its conduct “perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region” — all, at first, without calling out China by name.
“These actors undermine the system by using indirect, incremental actions and rhetorical devices to exploit others economically and diplomatically, and coerce them militarily,” Shanahan said. “We can’t wish away reality or continue to look the other way as countries use friendly rhetoric to distract from unfriendly acts.”
Shanahan did eventually refer to China by name later in his lengthy speech, in an apparent effort to avoid too much direct criticism in the closely watched remarks. While calling on Beijing to end “behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions,” and ticking off a long list of U.S. military power deployed to this region, Shanahan insisted that “China could still have a cooperative relationship with the United States.”
“We’re not going to ignore Chinese behavior,” Shanahan said following the speech. But, he insisted, “It’s not about confrontation.”
“We compete with China where we must. But competition does not mean conflict. Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules,” he said.
The speech has been closely watched amid heightened tensions over trade and security between the U.S. and China. The Trump administration’s national security strategy has called for pivoting its attention away from counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East and towards competition with great powers — specifically “China, China, China,” as Shanahan said of his priorities as defense secretary, earlier this year.
For the first time in a decade, Beijing sent a top-ranking defense official to the regional meeting, after years of dispatching lower-ranking officials while it sought to create its own regional conference framework. Shanahan and his counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, met for 20 minutes on Friday night. The meeting, Shanahan told reporters beforehand, was an opportunity to build the military-to-military relationship — which he said had a lot of “potential” because right now “we don’t have one… it’s all upside.” (He later said he had mischaracterized the relationship and that it was more established than he had suggested.) The two officials also discussed sanctions on North Korea, which the U.S. has been urging China to help enforce.
In response to questions after his speech, Shanahan said that the deteriorated relationship between China and the United States had been exaggerated in public reports as a “face-off.”
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” he said. Shanahan argued that there is no “trade war” with China, as he’s seen newspapers describe, only “trade negotiations” and ongoing military-to-military trust-building. The acting secretary used the opportunity to call out Chinese tech firm Huawei on its controversial 5G network. “Huawei is too close to the government,” he said. “We can’t trust that those networks will be protected.”
But, Shanahan said, “I’d be hesitant to talk about a face-off. There’s always a risk of a face-off. Negotiations are always difficult. You have two large countries that will eventually resolve these issues. Trust is built over time.”
Saturday’s speech was the former Boeing executive’s first major appearance on the global stage as President Trump’s putative pick to lead the Pentagon permanently. There were no major fireworks, but also no major gaffes. Several attendees praised his performance during the Q&A portion of the remarks, over the speech itself. The White House has said Trump intends to name Shanahan, but it has yet to send the paperwork necessary to formally nominate him to the Senate.
The remarks were also intended to underscore U.S. commitment to allies and lay out how the United States has implemented its broader strategy in the Indo-Pacific, tied to a report released Saturday. Continuing a theme of the Trump administration’s national security strategy, Shanahan emphasized the U.S.’s economic involvement in the region before he touted its security ties. “We know the interdependence of security and economics — that economic security is national security,” Shanahan said. He provided a by-the-numbers accounting of U.S. military involvement in the region, including the number of partner training exercises and the Pentagon budget for research and innovation. He also repeated the now-familiar plea from U.S. defense secretaries at this annual conference: regional allies should spend more on their own militaries. He noted that the United States spends 60 percent of its discretionary budget on defense.
“We are investing in you, and with you. And we need you to invest further in yourselves,” he said. “We need you to invest in ways that take more control over your sovereignty and your own ability to exercise sovereign choices.”
Shanahan also warned of the “extraordinary” threat from North Korea. In the following session, after speeches from the defense ministers of South Korea and Japan, Trump’s North Korea envoy, Steve Biegun, read a statement from the convention floor saying that Trump “is confident” that Kim Jong-un would continue with negotiations and that the United States stood by its commitments of last year. “Remain engaged. Avoid confrontation.” Beigun said, “The United States is convinced that through continued negotiations we can continue to close the gaps.”
Still, the U.S.-China relationship remained center stage during Shanahan’s remarks. Trump has traded tit-for-tat tariffs with China over what he has termed an “unfair” economic relationship between the two trading partners. Meanwhile, security officials have continued to warn about China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, its disputed territorial claims, and its use of what critics term “debt trap diplomacy” to accrue influence overseas.
Rep. Adam Smith, Wash., the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on the sidelines afterwards called it a “positive” speech. “There’s no reason we can’t work with China and compete with them at the same time, so I thought the secretary did a very good job of explaining our position,” he said.
“No surprises there. Pretty straightforward.”